Stephen Burt, ‘Connection charge’, review of Paul Muldoon, The End of the Poem, and Horse Latitudes, in Times Literary Supplement (24 Nov. 2006), pp.6-8.

Coming to Paul Muldoon now for the first time must feel like tuning in to an especially complicated, well-regarded television series midway through its seventh season. While devotees praise or deprecate each new twist, newcomers need help figuring out who is who, which parts even fans find baffling, and which - to the well-informed - make immediate sense. It seems only fair, then, to start a consideration of Muldoon’s pair of new books with a sketch of his prior career. Raised in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, Muldoon attended Queen’s University in the early 1970s, and lived mostly in Belfast until 086; he then moved to America, settling at Princeton University. The move divides the uneasy, often cryptic or terse, sometimes violent, verse that set him among the most admired (and most emulated) poets of Britain and Ireland from the no less cagey, more obviously virtuosic, verse he wrote in the United States.

The first phase - New Weather (1973) through Meeting the British (1987) - included unhappy love affairs, rural settings, precarious and unsettled youthful protagonists, shaggy-dog stories in verse, other sorts of self-cancelling, incomplete narratives, and much-remarked halfand off-rhyme. The second phase, obvious since The Annals of Chile (1994), maintained the odd rhymes and half-finished adventure stories, but added, seemingly designed to send readers to encyclopedias, difficult forms with repeated end words (especially the sestina), flotillas of proper nouns, and celebratory occasional verse.

Where the earlier poems could sound curtly querulous, the later have been teasingly loquacious; where earlier poems portrayed disgruntled lovers, the later depicted Muldoon’s happier adult life as a husband, teacher and father. At one end of his life - as it appeared in the poems - lay Armagh, the strivings of adolescence, and the poet’s admirable but close-mouthed farmer father; at the other, transatlantic success, most recently reflected in his position (from 1999-2004) as Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. The distance itself gave Muldoon plenty to reflect on: whether the parts of his life may be seen as connected, whether he can understand how he got from one end to the other, has become one of the problems his poems explore.

Elected by Oxford graduates, the Professor of Poetry must give three public lectures per year for five’ years. The End of the Poem collects Muldoon’s fifteen. Each save the last considers, at length, one poem, among them W. B. Yeats’s “All Souls’ Night”, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Twelve O’Clock News”, Eugenio Montale’s “The Eel” (in several translations), Arnolds “ Dover Beach “. (The last takes up three poems, all by former Professors: Robert Graves, C. Day-Lewis, and Seamus Heaney.) The End of the Poem, as a title, signifies the imputed, disputed purpose of poetry; the condition of closure or termination for a poem; the way interpretation can go on for ever; and the boundaries (if there are any) between poem and poet, poetry and biography, information relevant to a poem and information of no pertinence. Always inventive, Muldoon is best, not when examining individual poems, but when speculating about how poems in general get made. He nevertheless proposes memorable, plausible arguments about, for example, Emily Dickinson and circumpolar exploration; about Matthew Amold, Thomas Arnold and Thucydides; about Heaney and Robert Lowell.

Other arguments sound absurd. As in Muldoon’s only prior book of criticism, To Ireland, I (2000), no association can be ruled out; any likeness of sound or contiguity of experience in Muldoon’s mind can become as relevant to someone else’s writings as it would be to his own. Thus in “All Souls’ Night” Yeats’s avoidance of the word “lees” (as of wine) refers to his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees; “there’s a connection in Yeats’s mind” among the ‘poetic line’ and the ‘line of descent’, linen (for shrouds), and (via Keats) the linnet, which eats flax-seeds, from which linen can be made. The date appended to “All Souls’ Night”, “Oxford. Autumn 1920”, is for Muldoon “an astonishingly direct reference to “Keat’s ‘To Autumn (1820)’”, which makes the “lees” not in Yeats a version of the last oozings” from Keats’s cider-press. With these connections, that lecture comes to an end.

In the second lecture, Ted Hughes’s failure to use the word “loom” in a catty poem about visiting Marianne Moore shows that Hughes has been thinking about Harold Bloom, whose theories of literary influence would supposedly tie Moore to Hughes’s earlier book Moortown (1979). The ‘fern” in Moore’s own “Spenser’s Ireland” sounds like the “fen” in a poem she published in college, “fen” being a synonym of “marsh” or “moor”, which makes the fern “a subliminal version” of the poet, whose “own name, with its m, r and double o, is a near version of that ‘mirror’ held up to nature”. What begins as fascination with a poet’s mind has ended in the construction of crossword puzzles: it is only because Muldoon’s own poems work so splendidly, and at their best so pointedly, that we will read his remarks on hers at all.

Muldoon’s filters and search engines remain alert not so much for what Yeats would find relevant to a poem by Yeats, but for what Muldoon would find relevant to a poem by Muldoon - coincidences, puns, hidden barbs and jokes, what Auden called “the luck of verbal playing”. (Muldoon has read widely, but not always deeply, in the relevant scholarship: hearing, at the beginning of Lowell ’s “Quaker Graveyard”, echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, he overlooks Lowell ’s documented source in Thoreau.) The lectures come off best if we see them as Muldoon’s effort to show us how we should read him, and in turn to show us how he sees the world: a dense constellation of words, delightfully rich if we take it for what it is, but frighteningly unstable, disorienting even, if we expect, from its multifarious patterns, clues that tell us how to live.

Even the lectures’ exhilarated - and therefore unreliable - self-confidence of tone is part of that point: we do not know how seriously to take the points he makes, because he does not quite know what he ought to take seriously himself, which verbal overlaps and mental links are evidence of anything outside his head. Such uncertainty may be unusual for critics, but it is almost ordinary for poets, who can rely on nothing outside themselves as they decide what to make of their unfinished poems: connecting the word “expiation” to the word “expedition” in Dickinson, Muldoon does what many writers do when they misread their own handwriting, then accept on purpose what they have created by accident.

So evasive himself, Muldoon does well with the chameleonic Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, unearthing Pessoa’s bizarre but apparently productive dealings with Aleister Crowley, the English Satanist, self-promoter, minor poet and enemy of Yeats. Pessoa’s self-reinventions suggest, and Muldoon’s slippery lines perhaps confirm, “that each and every poem invents both its writer and its reader, and that both writer and reader are engaged in an endless round of negotiations from which no true peace may ever result”. The best poems, in other words, pose questions without answers; they draw us to problems which always remain to be solved.

An ally of questions, Muldoon is no friend to answers, and his emnity bears ethical and political points. Writing on Marina Tsvetayeva’s “Poem of the End”, Muldoon advances what has been a theme in his own verse for decades: the ineradicable opposition between any language we might call poetry, and any attempt, as of a political, religious or philosophical faction, to pin that language down. The end of the poem (in the sense of its extinction) is “the beginning of propaganda”, such as the Bolshevik ideology “with which ... Tsvetayeva was forced to contend”. Later Muldoon quotes Graves : “membership of any political party or religious sect or literary school deforms the poetic sense”. Muldoon’s earliest poems said, again and again, non serviam (“We answer to no grey South // Nor blue North”), and his heroes are still saying it: celebrating “Bob Dylan at Princeton, November 2000” in a new poem, Muldoon awards him not an honorary, but “an ornery degree”, praising “his absolute refusal to bend the knee”.

Muldoon’s talk on “ Dover Beach “ deserves special note. Arnold’s own first lecture as Professor of Poetry invoked, in phrases which Muldoon quotes, “that impatient irritation of mind which we feel in presence of an immense, moving, confused spectacle which, wile it perpetually excites our curiosity, perpetually baffles our comprehension.’ Arnold thought he had described one station on the way to understanding great art; for Muldoon that station may be the end of the line. Muldoon also quotes Jean Baudrillard: “Might we not transpose language games on to social and historical phenomena: anagrams, acrostics, spoonerisms, rhyme, strophe and catastrophe?” In such games, “meaning is dismembered and scattered to the winds”: to represent history and experience by transparently arbitrary verbal play is to imply that the sufferings historians seek to explain are themselves arbitrary, their patterns without use and without end.

The whimsical quality in such transpositions, the play in their proliferating net of connections, dominates Muldoon’s new prose; their frightening, sometimes fatal arbitrariness animates Muldoon’s new poems. Plenty of features in Horse Latitudes look familiar: the sonnet sequence (“Horse Latitudes”) and long stanzaic poem (“Sillyhow Stride”) which flip and swivel from context to context, in which distractable wit plays off against anguish; the handful of lucid, winning domestic lyrics; words that barely made the OED (“mummichog and menhaden”, Atlantic food fish; “sillyhow”, a caul); glamorous, doomed, drug-addicted, friends or ex-girlfriends; half-hidden sex jokes (“As I was bringing up her rear”); echoes of Irish history in the Americas; bravura rhyme schemes (each sonnet in “Horse” rhymes abcd dcb eeff abc); a brisk, lengthy set of haiku (“90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore”).

Horse Latitudes also offers much that is new, or else unseen since Quoof (1983): compared to the rest of Muldoon’s American oeuvre, it is harsh, slightly morbid, and shockingly topical. The opening sequence takes its matter from the bouts with cancer of a friend or ex-girlfriend named Carlotta, its digressions from the life of her emigrant grandfather, and the titles for sonnets from battles beginning with B: Bannockbum, Bunker Hill, Basra. “Carlotta would ... set a spill / to a Gauloise as one might set / a spill to the fuse of a falconet ... The French, meanwhile, were still struggling to prime / their weapons of mass destruction”. A lesser, but revealing, sonnet sequence, “The Old Country”, seems to have fallen together from the grating clichés which many of us store involuntarily in memory:

“Every wishy-washy water diviner
had stood like a bulwark

against something worth standing against.
The smell of incense left us incensed
at the firing of the fort.

Every heron was a presager
of some disaster after which, we’d wager,

every resort was a last resort.

“Wishy-washy”, “stood like a bulwark”, “last resort”: these are the pre-assembled ideas to which George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” objected, and Muldoon’s concealed point is Orwell’s overt one: glib words get people killed. (George W. Bush, March 2003: “As a last resort, we must be willing to use military force”.) Muldoon’s eighth book (by my count) to reflect his life in America, Horse Latitudes is also the first in which he seems not to admire his adopted home: much of it reflects the United States of 2003-05, determined to fight terrorists, or spectres of terrorists, here, there and everywhere, and to re-elect the architects of such designs. Horse Latitudes also reflects the illness and death, from cancer, not of any one friend or former lover (as in his earlier masterpiece “Incantata”), but of several: Muldoon has reached the age when friends’ illnesses come not as single spies out in battalions, and and his new, sadder tenor reflects that change, too.

All Muldoon’s collections reveal motifs, words and images which turn up, over and over, in apparently unrelated poems. Here he offers a stable’s-worth of horses: various stallions; the titular latitudes (“regions of calm” where ships get stuck, where sailors kill horses for food); stallions; heroin (“horse”); “ chevaux-de-frise “ (medieval fortifications, meant to disable cavalry); a “wooden horse head fitted with some kind of spike”; the morin khur (a Mongolian stringed instrument made from a horse’s skull); Glaucus, the mythical king who fed his horses “human flesh / to give them a taste for battle”, and who wound up “eaten by his own mares”. The horses in To Ireland, I - that is, in Muldoon’s overview of Irish literature - seem always either bound for, or returning from, the land of the dead; the equine element in Muldoon’s own new verse may point us there as well.

These horses join other gloomy leitmotifs: paired stones, often gravestones, to mark the book’s repeated mournings (“I fell between two stones / that raised me as their own”); turtles and tortoises (who remember what we forget); buzzards. The one-sentence, four-page poem called “Turkey Buzzards” sees the theologian’s and the thug’s / twin triumphings // in a buzzard’s shaved head and snood’. The volume-closing elegy, “Sillyhow Stride”, concludes with those North American birds’ scientific name, Cathartes aura : the macaronic pun suggests both that the arts have lost their aura, their magical meliorating power, and that the truest elegy offers neither apotheosis, nor catharsis, only scavengers above a corpse.

As sad as it gets, Horse Latitudes also gets angry. Theologians are like thugs; a sheep is “the avatar / of no god we know of, always the best kind”. The morin khur ’s traditional musical “call ... may no more be gainsaid / than that of blood kin to kin through a body-strewn central square”: the music that binds us to whatever Old Country may also lead us to kill in its name. Nor does Irish heritage escape. “ Hedge School ” links the often-valourised secret schools for eighteenth-century Catholics to “those rainy mornings when my daughter and the rest / of her all-American Latin class may yet be forced to conjugate / Guantánamo, amas, amat”: proud of its Irish roots, yet inclined to invasions, America suggests the worst of both worlds. Nor are all the battles political: when a coyote mauls the family dog, his bloody eye reminds the poet of a marital quarrel, hence of the figurative “ring where you and / knuckle down”.

The sexual and political frustration which suffuses Horse Latitudes also marked Quoof, readers who thought (unfairly) that Muldoon had gone soft should think this book his best since that one. A feeling that we have learned nothing from prior conflicts such as the Troubles, that we learn nothing no matter what, animates perhaps the best short poem here, “Turtles”. In this, a “cubit-wide turtle acting the bin” reminds Muldoon, first of the “lid-banging” used as, an informal local alarm in Belfast, and then of carnage elsewhere:

Nor am I certain, given their ability to smell the rot
once the rot sets in,
that turtles have not been enlisted by some police forces
to help them recover corpses.

Muldoon even finds, to his regret, sigils of strife in Bermuda : “The black W / on the cicada’s wings? War. / Hence the ballyhoo”. “90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore”, like Muldoon’s prior excursions into miniature forms, suggests that the illusion of order can come, if at all, only in very small units: on any larger scale, all is “Flux, Tom. Constant flux”. (“Tom Moore” names both the author of Irish Melodies, and a tortoise.)

“Sillyhow Stride”, with which the volume ends, mourns both Muldoon’s sister Maureen and the rock songwriter Warren Zevon (1947-2003), with whom Muldoon collaborated. Zevon’s songs - and his rock-and-roll, addiction-and-recovery life - give Muldoon a prototype for all art, which either makes otherwise aimless life worthwhile, or simply distracts us from grisly death: “two true, plain hearts like yourself and Maureen ... struggled to fend off the great crash that has us end // where we began, all strung out on heroin”. Stride, a style of jazz piano, requires the player’s left hand to alternate chords with octaves or tenths in the bass; Muldoon’s terza rima “stride” alternates reactions to Zevon’s and to Maureen’s dying with quotations from John Donne, one in almost every stanza. Muldoon wants to liken the witty songwriter to the dean of metaphysical wit, but the device makes Muldoon seem more like Donne himself: riddling, wildly variable, wildly learned, passionate, unpredictable, and frustrated by the violence he observed close at hand and early in life.

The literary ghost that haunts the volume, though, is not Donne, much less any Moore, but the Yeats of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, who found that he could believe in his own art, but not in much else, as he watched his country at war. “The Old Country” even attributes Yeats’s lines to the Christian Saviour: “Christ was somewhat impolitic / in branding as ‘weasels fighting in a hole’, forsooth, / the petrol smugglers back on the old sod”. Those smugglers may include Muldoon’s ancestors, but they are also the people who disrupt pipelines in the modern Middle East, and perhaps the all-too-legal petrol company veterans who helped to plan the invasion of Iraq. (Yeats: “We planned to bring the world under a rule / Who are but weasels fighting in a hole”.) For all the death and foreboding in this new book, Muldoon’s shorter poems still do well in depicting the comfort - always mingled with anxiety, faint hope, and absurd regret - in which New Jersey’s affluent towns (Princeton, for example) specialise, and in depicting the sexual comedy and anxiety of middle age. Alarmingly, the poems of love and sex here, like those from Quoof, chronicle spats and extramarital affairs (“As Your Husband Looks Up To Our Window”): one does not want to know which are drawn from the life.

In one of the new domestic poems, a toy for Muldoon’s son, newly assembled, becomes an “imperspicuous game / that seems to be missing one piece, if not more”: this forever-unsolvable problem suggests both the unsolved mysteries left to us by deceased parents, and the enduring riddles in all good poems: “The game. The plaything spread on the rug. / The fifty years I’ve spent trying to put it together”. It would be puerile to argue that Muldoon’s puzzling art represents confusion by confusion, incomprehension by bafflement: rather, Muldoon pursues - as Robert Frost pursued - both curiosity and bafflement, both the ways in which the world’s games, problems and riddles draw us in, and the ways in which they will not let us out alive.

“The poem itself”, Muldoon decides in the lectures, “is, after all, the solution to a problem only it has raised, and our reading of it necessarily entails determining what that problem was.” A later restatement omits the solution: “One of a poem’s main aims is to continue to present itself as a problem only it has raised”. It is a motto we might pin to Muldoon’s own work. Yet to focus on problems, however justified, may be to underplay the delights Muldoon’s forms retain. You might not consider “Write a playful double villanelle about the progress of Women’s sports in America, naming a novelty song in one refrain” to be an assignment crying out for completion, much less a problem that needs to be explored: “Soccer Moms” would prove you wrong. If Muldoon’s lesser poems, when not incomprehensible, come off as mere games, his great ones are great games, matches between the absolutely necessary and the entirely arbitrary, played on the whole field of the English language, with grace, roughness, passion, late substitutions, astonishing transitions, and breathtaking saves. It’s not too late for newcomers to tune in.


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